“The 39 Steps” is based on the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, yet this entertaining stage version owes a debt to Monty Python, too.
For one thing, this show is full of silly walks, including that of a Scottish farm girl who inexplicably prances around ballet-style and a Scottish professor who does the goose step.
And silly accents? Oh, brother, this is an international tour of silly accents. The four actors who play the 150 roles in “The 39 Steps” put on often-impenetrable Russian, Scottish, German and English accents – sometimes in the same scene.
And whenever a character utters the name “Schmidt” – which happens a lot – another character has to take out a handkerchief and wipe an eyebrow. It’s like projectile Schmidt-ing.
So that should give you an idea of the crazy comic world of “The 39 Steps,” a huge London and New York hit, and now being staged by an energetic cast at Interplayers, under the clever comic direction of William C. Marlowe.
The show’s concept is not easy to describe, but here’s the best I can do: It’s as if four talented improv actors decided to re-create the Hitchcock suspense classic in your living room, using mostly the original dialogue and whatever props were lying around.
The results can be mixed, as you might imagine, but ultimately winning, through sheer inventiveness and comic chutzpah.
The excellent Damon Mentzer is the heart of the show, the only actor without multiple characters. He plays the pipe-smoking Richard Hannay, the classic debonair Hitchcockian hero, who finds himself entangled in a dangerous conspiracy. A Russian femme fatale spends the night in his London flat and dies with a dagger in her back.
This sets in motion a dizzying sequence of events, including a railroad chase, a jump from a bridge, an escape through the Scottish highlands, a visit to a mysterious professor, and ultimately, a return visit to the London Palladium.
Marlowe creates those scenes from a jumble of chairs, tables, chests and desks, scattered around the stage. Half of the fun is watching the actors assemble, say, a train coach or a car, and then conjure it into jolting motion.
The rest of the fun is watching this cast blast through a dizzying array of farmers, policemen, underwear salesmen, innkeepers and Nazis. Jerry Sciarrio and Damon Abdallah play “Clown 1” and “Clown 2,” who switch hats, coats and sometimes kilts to play most of the male characters and a few of the females. Elisha Gunn plays the main female characters, including the Russian femme fatale and a skeptical British girl who ends up handcuffed to Hannay for most of the second act.
Abdallah and Sciarrio are talented clowns with loads of comic technique and are fascinating to watch. Gunn doesn’t quite have the same technical expertise to draw from; her accents are often so exaggerated as to be unintelligible.
In fact, I found this to be an issue throughout the play. Accents by themselves are not funny – and making them broader does not automatically make them funny. The accents have to be used for a larger comic purpose, which was sometimes hard to discern.
This is the real challenge of a show like this. Silliness can get old quickly when it seems untied to a larger point. For instance, why is a Scottish farm girl prancing around like a ballerina? Also, I had the feeling that a show this complicated could have used a little more rehearsal. Cues were sometimes not picked up quickly.
That’s an issue that will solve itself as the run continues. Meanwhile, the show already has dozens of delightful moments: Mentzer slithering out from under a dead Schmidt; a brilliant window “escape” scene; Abdallah carrying on two sides of a phone conversation; he and Sciarrio leering over a satchel of lingerie; and Mentzer and Gunn trying to sleep on a couch while handcuffed together.
This show often conjures a special kind of theatrical magic, a mixture of old-fashioned make-believe and Pythonesque eccentricity. It’s fun, it’s unpredictable and the show won’t be the same twice.